Writing Specific Aims

Identifying Specific Aims

  • Identify a research gap. Can your research move your field forward?
  • Determine the significance of the problem and impact. Is the work important—will progress make a difference to our understanding of neuroscience and/or human health?
  • Is your team experienced and able to carry out the work?

Outlining Specific Aims

  • Step 1: Determine whether your research questions are exploratory (hypothesis-generating) or confirmatory (hypothesis-testing). If confirmatory, make sure the hypotheses are focused, testable, built on a solid scientific foundation, and important.

  • Step 2: Draft aims to generate and/or test the hypotheses feasibly within the grant period.

    • Usually a one-page limit.
    • The aims should be focused and easy to assess by reviewers.
    • For many mechanisms, consider avoiding interdependent aims.
    • In drafting the specific aims, it can be informative to:
      • Outline experiments and outcomes.
      • Determine approximate personnel, resources, and timeline.
      • Identify a potential funding institute and funding mechanism.
      • Consider potential study sections and expertise of reviewers. 
      • Assess feasibility of your proposed work within the proposed funding mechanism.
  • Step 3: Revise aims as needed.

Writing the Specific Aims

Provide a narrative describing the rationale and significance of your planned research. A good way to start is with a sentence that states your project's goals. In some cases, you may want to explain why you did not take an alternative route. State your hypothesis (if relevant) and briefly describe your aims and how they build on rigorous prior and preliminary studies. If it is likely your application will be reviewed by a study section with broad expertise, summarize the status of research in your field and explain how your project fits in. In the narrative part of the Specific Aims of many applications, people also use their aims to:

  • State the technologies they plan to use.

  • Note their expertise to do a specific task or that of collaborators.

  • Describe past accomplishments related to the project.

  • Describe preliminary studies and new and highly relevant findings in the field.

  • Explain their area's biology.

  • Show how the aims relate to one another.

  • Use bold or italics to emphasize items they want to bring to the reviewers' attention, such as the hypothesis or rationale.

Depending on your situation, decide which items are important for you. For example, an Early-Stage Investigator may want to highlight preliminary data and qualifications to do the work.

After the narrative, enter your aims as stand-alone headers, run-on headers, or bullet points

  • State your plans using strong verbs like identify, define, quantify, establish, determine.

  • Describe each aim in one to three sentences.

  • Consider adding bullets under each aim to refine your objectives.

  • Describe expected outcomes for each aim.

  • Explain how you plan to interpret data from the aim’s efforts.

  • Describe how to address potential pitfalls with contingency plans.

Some people add a closing paragraph, emphasizing the significance of the work, their collaborators, or whatever else they want to focus reviewers' attention on.

It can be useful to have a colleague review your aims for clarity (particularly a colleague outside your field or a colleague with NIH funding or NIH study section experience). 


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